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Russian detectives go on treasure hunt for 55,000 artworks

RUSSIAN police are looking for 55,000 stolen works of art worth more than £500m that have been smuggled abroad and sold on the black market during the 15 years since the collapse of communism.

In what has been described as the countrys largest treasure hunt, the authorities are trying to retrieve 3,400 paintings, 37,000 icons and 1,500 rare books as well as gems, coins and musical instruments. They were taken from museums, churches and private collections.

Investigators from the Russian interior ministry have compiled the first comprehensive database of the lost art. They have also given Interpol descriptions of the 700 most valuable items in the hope that some will be tracked down as they are traded on the international art market.

A lot of art was stolen in the chaotic years after the collapse of communism, said an official who helped to set up the database. In those days we barely had computers. Now we are much more organised and every item which is stolen is properly registered.

Among the missing works is Pool in a Harem, a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, the 19th-century French artist. It is worth more than £500,000 and was stolen from the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg in 2001.

Also on the list is a £1m canvas by Kazmir Malevich, the Russian abstract artist, which vanished from a private collection more than a decade ago.

A painting by Ivan Aivazovsky, estimated to be worth more than £500,000, was stolen in 1998 from a museum in Astrakhan. Weeks passed before a custodian noticed that the original canvas had been replaced with a copy.

There are more than 2,000 museums in Russia and the majority lack funds to install proper security systems, said one investigator.

The main smuggling route used by art thieves crossed Poland into Germany, said investigators. But many works have also turned up in Britain. Two months ago Richard Temple, a British art collector, returned an icon dating from 1550 after discovering that it had been stolen from a church 300 miles north of Moscow 11 years ago.

It had vanished with other icons worth a total of £1m after a gang of thieves drugged two church workers who were guarding the treasure.


Date: 11.11.2005

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